Elizabeth Fulhame: the invisible chemist.
Elizabeth Fulhame was an accomplished research chemist of the late eighteenth century who was well known to the prominent chemists of her era but is virtually unknown today. All she left us was a single slim volume entitled An Essay on Combustion. This book is quite remarkable: it is an exemplar of experimental scientific method, which details her painstaking investigation of new types of chemical reaction, and includes her opinion about the major theoretical issue of her time, the concept of phlogiston.
In An Essay on Combustion Fulhame argued that the phlogiston theory was incorrect. However, she also rejected Lavoisier's views, which are the basis for current thought. Fulhame's integrity, logical consistency and independence of opinion shine through her extraordinary little book. This study will comment on the value of her work both as a chemist and as a role model, as she exemplifies desirable qualities to be valued in scientists of any era. In conclusion, the case is put that a copy of An Essay on Combustion should be available in all school or university libraries, so that students may judge the value of Elizabeth Fulhame's work for themselves.
Elizabeth Fulhame was an accomplished early chemist but very little is known about her--not even the dates of her birth and death (Oglivie, 1991, pp. 89-90). She was married to Dr Thomas Fulhame, a physician who obtained his M.D. degree at Edinburgh University in 1784 (Laidler, 1995b). Thomas Fulhame enrolled in the chemistry class at Edinburgh in 1779-1780 and remained associated with this chemistry class until 1790. It is known that Thomas Fulhame corresponded with the Scottish chemist, Joseph Black, invented a process for manufacturing white lead, and spent some time in Spain (Davenport, 2004, pp. 128-129). Elizabeth Fulhame thus had ample opportunity to be acquainted with chemists socially. Indeed, she was an honorary member of the Philadelphia Chemical Society (Partington, Ill, p. 709). She appears to have been known to the famous scientists of the time--including Priestley, Woodhouse and Count Rumford (Partington, Ill, 1965 p. 709).
The sources for this study are many and varied. They include Coindet (1798); Cornish-Bowden (1998); Davenport (2004); Davenport & Ireland (1989); Laidler (1995a; 1995b); Laidler & Cornish-Bowden (1997); Mellor (1903); Neeley & Bashore (2005); Partington, III (1965); Rayner-Canham (1998). However the main source is Mrs Fulhame's own wonderfully written text.
Mrs Fulhame's book (Fulhame, 1794) is a scientific work rather than a school textbook and this goes some way to explaining its rarity. In it, Fulhame investigates the possibility of making cloth of gold and silver as a commercial project, an enterprise that appears to have been suggested in conversation with her husband and friends. Publication in her own name (as a woman) at this time was not easy. With some justification she feared that her ideas would be copied due to 'the furacious attempts of the prowling plagiary' (Fulhame, 1794, p. vii). Indeed this happened to the works of Mrs Marcet (Marcet, 1814), whose text was plagiarised by several male textbook writers (for example: Blake, 1826: Comstock, 1833: Jones, 1845) with only slight modifications from the original.
But it is an interesting consequence of Mrs Fulhame's book not being plagiarised that original copies are now extremely hard to find. Fortunately, there are publishing houses that will supply single copies of the work on demand. Facsimile copies of historical works, individually produced, make research into some of the less accessible parts of the history of science more open. The British Library has two copies in English (Fulhame, 1794) and a copy published in German (Fulhame, 1798). There was also a third printing in the United States (Fulhame, 1810).
Research on the life of Mrs Fulhame is of necessity limited to the contents of the single book that she wrote. Little else is known of her personal and professional life. She was the only corresponding member of the Chemical Society of Philadelphia, an organisation that James Woodhouse) founded and of which he was senior president until his death. She therefore had professional connections in both Britain and the USA. Elizabeth Fulhame's book is important because:
* her research methodology and scientific logic could be considered as a model for scientists of any era.
* she made discoveries in fields (photography, catalysis and reaction mechanisms) such that experts in those areas now recognise her as being amongst the founders of those fields of chemistry. However it could be argued that she did not follow up these discoveries; it was the case that they were peripheral to her main aim, as stated in the first sentence of her book as 'the possibility of making cloths of gold, silver, and other metals by chymical processes' (Fulhame, 1794, p. iii).
* there is evidence from her book of her position on the then key issue in chemistry--the phlogiston/antiphlogiston debate. A recent article (Woodcock, 2005, pp. 63-69) elegantly explains the background to the phlogiston debate, with an emphasis on the life and achievements of Joseph Priestley. Priestley was an acquaintance of Elizabeth Fulhame. Her critical reading of the research of her contemporaries and her fair usage of their ideas and discoveries remain an excellent role model for research.
* finally, she published a scientific work as a woman. This is particularly relevant in the light of Elizabeth Fulhame's role as a model for female students today. It is recorded that soon after its publication, Mrs Fulhame's book received considerable attention. It was reviewed at length by Coindet (Coindet, 1798, pp. 58-85) in Annales de Chimie. It was also reviewed in The Gentleman's Magazine wherein the fact that the author was female (rather than the quality of her chemical thought) was the main thrust of the review, which began:
An essay on combustion by a lady! thought we, could proceed from no other pen than that of Miss Williams or Mrs Wolstencroft and must be a political disquisition disguised. We were agreeably disappointed, to find that it relates entirely to a method of making cloaths of gold ... (Anon, 1795, p. 501)
However the reviewer does conclude that the experiments 'are not unworthy of the attention of chemists' (Anon, 1795, p. 501). The anonymous editor of the American edition of the book regrets the oblivion into which the book had then (1810) fallen and hopes it will have a better future in America. But these hopes were not fulfilled (Davenport & Ireland, 1989, p. 41). Thereafter her book and the discoveries Fulhame made were largely forgotten until J. W. Mellor revived interest in her work (Mellor, 1903, p. 557), though her work did continue to receive some notice due to its relevance to a history of photographic imaging (for example, Snelling, 1845). The single most disappointing factor regarding her work is how little influence it had. The subject of the book is finding new ways of dyeing cloth. However, a dictionary published some time after publication of Fulhame's book carried a complete fifteen-page section on dyeing (Anon, 1816, pp. 770-785) that makes no mention of her ideas. Nor do they appear to have been put to any practical use. Similarly a reference work by Gregory (1798, pp. 227-237) gives considerable space to the research on gold at that time, yet Mrs Fulhame is not mentioned. Nor indeed is she mentioned in the sections Gregory wrote on copper, mercury, silver (pp. 215-226) and platinum. Gregory does note however that the colour change of solutions of a silver salt from white to black by the action of light is used by ladies as 'a caprice of fashion'. It can be supposed that male encyclopaedists did not mention Fulhame's work either because of her gender, or because of the nature of her research.
Elizabeth Fulhame's An essay on combustion: A model of scientific research
An Essay on Combustion consists of 182 pages, including a two-page glossary on the nomenclature being used. In the book, Mrs Fulhame uses the modern nomenclature introduced by Antoine Lavoisier, but provides an older set of equivalents which would still have been used by many of her English-speaking readers. This is an exemplar of a scientist wishing to make her work as accessible as possible. The work contains a preface, an introduction, ten chapters containing the accounts of her experiments, and a concluding chapter. The preface contains an excellent and revealing account of her methods, motivations, fears and dislikes. The introduction gives a theoretical base showing she had read the works of other chemists, particularly those who had made a contribution to the debate on phlogiston. In her first chapter she mentions the theoretical perspectives of Beccher, Stahl, Lavoisier, Kirwan, Crawford, Macquer, Scheele, De Fourcroy and Priestley. Even today this would be considered to be a fair representation of both sides of the debate. In considering the period generally, it is noticeable that some chemists, such as Richard Watson, who had moderate views on phlogiston (Palmer, 2004), do not get a mention. Generally it is books rather than journal articles that are quoted. It is also evident that the encyclopaedias then available, such as The Encyclopaedia Britannica (Smellie, 1771) are not used as references by Fulhame. These omissions are largely remedied in the remaining chapters, where the following additional scientists are mentioned: Dr Nooth (for his apparatus), Pelletier, Bergman, Keir, Monnet, Lewis, Sage, Watson (Llandaff), Gengembre, Rouelle, Le Roy, Bindheim, Beccaria (indirectly), Berthollet, Cavendish, Margraaf and De Morveau. Fahrenheit and Reaumur also receive a mention for their thermometric scales.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The scientists whom Fulhame most frequently quotes are Lavoisier, Priestley, Bergman, Kirwan and Scheele. From our perspective, the phlogiston debate seems strange. It is now known that Lavoisier (Palmer, 1995) and his group were closer to the truth about oxidation, whilst Priestley, Cavendish, Scheele (see Palmer, 2000) and Bergman were further from a correct understanding of the process. It now seems so obvious that the modern observer is amazed that so many chemists of genius could have been so wrong.
The truth however is a little different, The phlogiston theory--though incorrect--did prove to be an excellent artifice in providing a theoretical base from which early chemists could solve a variety of chemical problems. Elizabeth Fulhame assumed a theoretical position close to that of Lavoisier, but in the end it was her view that both the phlogistonists and the anti-phlogistonists were wrong, She attacked both the phlogistic and antiphlogistic hypotheses at a time when this was the major topic of theoretical debate in chemistry:
... I was led to form an opinion different from that of M. Lavoisier, and other great names. Persuaded that we are not to be deterred from the investigation of truth by any authority however great, and that every opinion must stand or fail by its own merits, I venture with diffidence to offer mine to the world, wilting to relinquish it as soon as a more rational appears. (Fulhame, 1794, p. xiii)
It is clear that Fulhame has read widely and has fairly represented both sides of a theoretical debate, carefully considering the evidence before coming to independent conclusions of her own. That in itself is an achievement for any researcher and should be pointed out as exemplary to young researchers today.
Fulhame did not require much apparatus for her experiments. Only one piece merits description, and she acknowledges Dr Priestley's advice (Fulhame, p. x) on this matter. The apparatus is Dr Nooth's machine, which produced the gas with which she treated some samples of cloth. She comments that it is the cheapest and the simplest device available--still valid criteria for any choice of apparatus.
Mrs Fulhame is remarkable for her patience. A period of some fourteen years elapsed between the time the idea of a scientific investigation occurred to her in 1780 (Fulhame, 1794, p. iii) and the time when she was able to publish her findings, an endeavour that involved further expense as the book was published privately. Her slow progress is explained very succinctly as reflecting a limitation that may strike a responsive chord with most researchers:
Animated by this small success, I have, from time to time, ever since prosecuted the subject as far as pecuniary circumstances would permit. (Fulhame, 1794, p. iii)
Again she admits what most researchers are forced to admit at some stage: that they grossly underestimated the time needed to complete a project:
I imagined in the beginning, that a few experiments would determine the problem but experience soon convinced me that a very great number indeed were necessary, before such an art could be brought to any tolerable degree of perfection. (Fulhame, 1794, p. iii)
Others have repeated Mrs Fulhame's experiments. For example, Davenport, & Ireland, (1989, p. 39) observed that her experiments were 'numerous, meticulous and numbingly tedious'. Furthermore they reported that they could vouch for her results, having performed some of her experiments. These researchers obtained similar results while noting that there were minor differences which perhaps were due to lack of purity of Mrs Fulhame's reagents. Rayner-Canham (1983, p. 140) describes her experiments as elegant and her explanations for the results of these experiments as novel.
The first experiments
It is not possible in this brief essay to describe all the experiments that Mrs Fulhame completed over a period of fourteen years. However it can he said that in general she used a variety of different reducing agents to react with a solution of a metallic salt absorbed on a thread. Often the salt was chemically reduced, leaving the metal integrated into the thread.
In Chapter 1, she uses hydrogen to reduce a gold salt. She dissolved gold in aqua regia (a solution of nitro-muriatic acid) and then treats this with ether, in which the gold salt preferentially dissolves. She dipped a white silk thread into this solution and suspended this thread in a tall gas jar, in the bottom of which were iron filings and sulfuric acid, continually producing hydrogen. Fulhame continued this experiment for four months, making regular observations and renewing the iron filings and sulfuric acid as required. She did obtain particles of reduced gold attached to the thread, which she examined in bright sunlight. She was not satisfied with the results and for a second experiment had the gold dissolved in water instead of ether. After leaving it for two months she was better satisfied with the results. She writes:
Examining the silk in the sunbeams, I perceived the whole of it spangled with minute particles of reduced gold. After many experiments with these two solutions of gold, I was led to conclude that the solution in water answered best. (Fulhame, 1794, p. 16)
Fulhame then repeated these experiments with solutions of many different metallic salts, including silver, lead, platinum, mercury, copper, tin, arsenic, bismuth, antimony, iron and zinc. Apart from the solutions of different metallic salts, she repeats experiments with gold and silver on a number of occasions under different conditions. It becomes obvious that she has arrived at some provisional hypothesis about the importance of water in oxidation and reduction, as she carries out similar experiments in the presence of water and with all water removed. It is fascinating to observe Mrs Fulhame constructing a scientific conclusion on the basis of many experiments, all of which are repeated several times. At the end of the first chapter (Fulhame, 1794, pp. 36-37), she arrives at her initial conclusion.
In the nine chapters that follow different reducing agents are used with the metallic salts. Chapter 11, the final chapter, provides overall conclusions for the book. One feature of the experiments that Mrs Fulhame carried out was that they were all qualitative. This was in an era when many other chemists were choosing quantitative methods. The quantitative/qualitative divide was not a new one. Early alchemists had certainly provided recipes for their experimental procedures, though they often cloaked their language in secret words and symbols. Other early chemists such as Jean Rey, 1582-1645 (Partington, II, p. 632) or Robert Boyle (1627-1691) (Jenkins-Jones, p. 67) certainly conducted quantitative chemical experiments. One major virtue of Mrs Fulhame's work is the clarity with which she describes her methods, the substances that she used and the detail and meticulous recording of her observations. One consequence of this clarity and honesty is that historians of science can look back at her work and from the standpoint of additional knowledge and hindsight see the pathways by which her work could have led to the discovery of new applications. However these applications were not in any way part of her original aims, irrespective of the extent to which they would have provided an opportunity for discovery had the research continued. What can be said is that her research carried within it the embryonic ideas of photography, catalysis and reaction mechanisms.
A discovery with applications to photography
Those researchers interested in the history of photography give Elizabeth Fulhame credit for recording the action of light on some of the metallic salts she was investigating. For example:
Whilst looking at the action of light on metal salts Mrs Fulhame produced the first recorded example of photochemical imaging. (Rayner-Canham, 1998. p. 29).
Histories of photography mention earlier observations on the effect of light on some metallic salts. For example, in 1556 it was observed that horn silver (silver chloride), was blackened by the sun's rays (URL: Classic-photography). Mrs Fulhame (1794, p. 146) carried out an experiment with a silk thread dipped in nitro-muriate of gold on a china plate and exposed it to sunlight. The thread changed colour many times, eventually 'exhibiting the texture of the silk in a beautiful manner'. Furthermore she says:
This experiment, which is very amusing, I have repeated times unnumbered: when the sun is powerful, and the solution properly prepared, and of due strength, the coat of reduced gold is so bright and dazzling as to distress the eye of the beholder. (Fulhame, 1794, p. 146)
Her delight at the results of her experiment is obvious. Indeed it is a pleasure that aligns closely with the philosophy of the author of this paper--that chemistry is fun. It is an important descriptor of an individual who could be cast as a researcher role model that they should enjoy research, and it is evident that Elizabeth Fulhame does. It is important to reiterate this at this point that Mrs Fulhame did not discover photography. However her experiments foreshadowed the discovery of photography some fifty years later by Daguerre, 1838, whose process was superseded by Fox-Talbot in 1848 (Jenkins-Jones, p. 118).
A discovery with applications to catalysis
Jons Jakob Berzelius (1779-1848) is usually credited as the first person to develop the concept of catalysis. It was an idea that became the subject of experiment and discussion by many eminent chemists over the next hundred years The word 'catalyst' was first proposed by H. E. Armstrong (1848-1937) (Laidler, 1986, p. 351; Palmer, 2005, p. 3). Elizabeth Fulhame formed the idea that water was necessary in all reactions in order for the reaction to proceed.
Water is essential both to the reduction and oxygenation of bodies and is always decomposed in these operations. (Fulhame, 1794, p.178)
This observation is in fact an oversimplification. In relation to her ideas on catalysis and of reactions taking place in stages (reaction mechanisms), typical of a modern understanding of catalysis, Laidler says:
Although her suggestions were necessarily incorrect in detail, the mechanisms she proposed are of the type now known to occur in catalyzed reactions, which involve a substance that enters into a reaction but is eventually regenerated. Mrs Fulhame therefore deserves much credit for her imaginative ideas. (Laidler, 1986, p. 346)
It should be recorded that Mrs Fulhame's views were criticised at the time by William Higgins, an Irish chemist who believed that she had stolen his ideas. Laidler (1986, p. 346) considers that it is unlikely that Fulhame plagiarised Higgins's work.
Mrs Fulhame as a role model
The account above sets out a powerful argument as to why Mrs Fulhame's work should be remembered. But is she a suitable role model for our students, teachers or researchers?
Firstly much of what is asserted regarding role models stems from what individuals believe they themselves have experienced. Instances where a teacher, lecturer or relative--the role model--influences a young student to become interested in science are not uncommon. For example, Lise Meitner, although already interested in physics (Watkins, 1984, p. 12), decided on a career in physics as a result of listening from outside the lecture hall to Ludwig Boltzman.
As a result of her fascination with Boltzman's presentations, she made a clear decision to become a physicist. (Watkins, 1984, p. 13)
There are other similar examples of men and women who became scientists as a result of some personal intervention by a teacher, lecturer or influential adult. Stephen Brush (1985, p. 11) posed the question, 'How should we use historical role models to increase the participation of women in science?' Brush partitioned research between two extremes--drudgery and discovery--and contends that the models of success should be emphasised in teaching and in text books. He lists the names often twentieth century women scientists and gives additional information about them. He criticises physics and chemistry textbooks for the lack of biographical information. But is there evidence that short biographies of scientists encourage students to take a greater interest in science? In the thirty years since Brush wrote this article it has become evident that while some teachers find this approach helpful in their teaching there is little evidence that a historical approach is productive. However, in relation to the influence of role models on female students the following point has been made:
This is not a trivial issue. In stories of individual lives and in conclusions of education research studies, role models have been shown to be of immense importance in girls' and women's decisions to learn science. (Giese, 2008)
It can be inferred that additional material on the lives of famous scientists influence some students, while others are not influenced greatly. Even a singular role model such as Marie Curie can be perceived in a contradictory fashion. While (Giese, 2008) states that 'Madame Curie had a powerful influence as a role model', Kohlstedt (2004, p. 3) quoting Rossiter (1982) states 'Curie may have inadvertently created a "Curie effect" in which her brilliance in research made her a distancing role model'.
Perhaps the fairest evaluation of the work of Elizabeth Fulhame is that made in Women in Chemistry: Their Changing Roles from Alchemical Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century by Marlene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham (fully reviewed by Singleton, 1999). They state the following in relation to the work of Mrs Fulhame:
'But above all, we would identify her as the first solo woman researcher of modern chemistry.'
(Rayner-Canham, M. & Rayner-Canham, G., 1998)
That conclusion is useful. It means that Elizabeth Fulhame's significance as a role model does not depend on the hindsight that is needed to recognise her as discovering catalysis, or uncovering the principles of photography. Rather it depends on the recognition she received from her contemporaries--her peers in chemistry--such as Priestley and Rumford. Science teachers should acknowledge that Mrs Fulhame always followed a logical scientific methodology, and they should admire her for her patience, perseverance, integrity and independence of spirit. Finally, as a practical way of recognising her, and her value as a role model, they could consider asking their school library to purchase a copy of her book, which is available on individual order for less than US$100.
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Dr William P. Palmer (Bill Palmer) has taught in Britain, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Western Samoa. He was a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Health and Science at Charles Darwin University, Australia from 1989 until February 2007 when he retired after nearly fifty years in science education. His main research has been in teacher education, science (chemical) education and the history of science, and he continues to keep up his research as an associate of Curtin University.
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